In the course of writing the book, what did you find out about Mother Teresa that you didn't know?
I came at it with a sense that she was a lightweight. Like so many people, she was doing good things, but there was nothing necessarily that compelling about her. She was a nun working with the poor, but a lot of nuns and laypeople work with the poor.
That was shattered during the course of writing the book. It blew me away how deeply spiritual her life was. Her whole approach to life, and the hardships she faced, was carried out at a very deep spiritual level.
I came at it very underwhelmed about her; it was a journalistic project. When I walked away, it had become a spiritual challenge to my own life.
Every aid worker encounters difficulties and resistance, and questions why they're there. The anguish she felt was at a much higher pitch, and her response was at a much higher spiritual level of intensity.
There was information in your book about her parents that I didn't realize.
She didn't give people a lot of leads. Eileen Egan was the only biographer to report in any detail about her father's death. He was a financier of the Independence movement for Albania. People used to gather at his house, and they'd sing folk songs and plan an independence movement. It appears he was poisoned by Yugoslav authorities. She was 9 or 10.
Her mother gets reduced to stereotypes in a lot of books-"she was a hard worker, she prayed her rosary." Nobody probed her too much, but her mother seems like an incredible woman and the source of everything in her personality, from her sense of humor to her love for the poor.
Her husband died and all her business partners fled. So she started becoming a seamstress and built a small business. At the same time, almost every weeknight at the table were people Mother Teresa never knew, poor people. [Her mother] had a special kind of love for women in distress. Old, homeless women, unwed mothers in crisis pregnancies would stay with them.
She left for her vocation at age 18 and never saw her mother again. Ever.
I was surprised to read that for over 10 years when she first came to Calcutta, Mother Teresa worked in a private girls' school with high walls and was not really involved with the poor. Some biographers speculate that her vocation for the poor was germinating inside her. What are your thoughts?
One of the few letters from her mother that we have is just a snippet, reminding her, "you went off to the mission not to be a principal of private school for privileged Indian girls. You're there for the poor."
Her mother brings up this woman, File, who used to live at their house, saying, "You have to remember File." In that letter, the mother says, "the greatest poverty for File was to feel unloved." We hear that repeatedly from Mother Teresa's lips later on.
But we just don't know. I think it's part of her mystery and her meaning. All the biographies have little lines at the beginning that say "Mother Teresa was always reticent about the past," which means "she didn't answer any questions that I asked her." I don't think it's because there's any dark skeleton. It has to do with her overwhelming sense that it wasn't her that mattered, it was Jesus who mattered.
Since her death, researchers have found a cache of letters, correct?
They're not all the letters, but some from the 1940s. There are probably more, but those are the ones we have.
What did letters reveal?
The initial vision from Jesus was, "I want you to serve the poor." The letters detail exactly what Jesus said to her. It lays out the whole program for the Missionaries of Charity, including the name. Jesus tells her, "I want missionaries of charity." The other thing that's frequently in his statements to her is this phrase "Wilt thou refuse?" She often would say to people, "Will you refuse what Jesus is asking?"
In the last of the visions she receives, she has this very strange vision that she's on Calvary with Mary and Jesus. She's told that she's supposed to teach the world how to pray the family rosary. I'm not sure if, in 1946, that was a concept that was widely known or not.